Our Country’s Good is great

Dawson Theatre play a fine replication of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s epic drama

By Byron Toben

our country’s good dawson theatre playWestmount and Montreal residents are fortunate to have the superb and comfortable Dawson Theatre, a few steps away from an Atwater Metro exit.

There is a certain nostalgic remembrance of Dawson College’s drama performances for 30 years at the creaky old Dome theatre near the St-Henri metro. The new venue, open since 2004, excels in audience features – wide aisles, great sight lines from any angle, easy on the tush seat padding. And, as with Sir John Abbot College and Concordia University, Dawson’s theatre program continues to generate talented grads to the Canadian performance universe – not only actors, but designers and managers.

… as with Sir John Abbot College and Concordia University, Dawson’s theatre program continues
to generate talented grads to the Canadian performance universe …

our country’s good dawson theatre playThe latest example of its quality and free or low priced student productions is the fine replication of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s epic drama Our Country’s Good. The playwright, my favourite of British women, along with Caryl Churchill, is not afraid to tackle big topics. The topic here is the British practice of sending convicts and political prisoners to remote locations – in this case, Australia. The first such ships arrived at Botany Bay near Sydney in 1787. This practice peaked around 1840 but it was not until 1868 that the last convict ship arrived in Western Australia.

Dawson prof Barbara Kelly has successfully organized 22 students playing 20 roles in the play. Dialects, ranging from English, Scots, Irish and cockney, were mastered with the assistance of fellow prof Jude Beny.

The transported convicts endured lashings of up to 150 (shades of Saudi Arabia!) and even hanging for stealing food (shades of Nazi camps!).

The play revolves around the attempt of one of the officers, 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Anton May) to humanize the exiles by putting on a play, Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. He casts the young prisoner Mary Brenham (Emily Plante) as the romantic female character and himself as the lead. Despite obstruction by various officers, the project is blessed by Governor Arthur Phillip and proceeds, despite the pending hanging of participant Liz Morden (Yvonne Lea) for stealing some bread (shades of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables!). The arrival and rehearsals are watched in bewilderment from the bush by an aboriginal (Daniella Sandiford) who wonders if these strange goings on are but a dream.

our country’s good dawson theatre playThe only other play I know of that is inspired by a military force putting on a play for the public is L’Affaire Tartuffe or the Garrison officers Rehearse Moliere by Montreal’s own Marianne Ackerman. Readers who discover another one please inform Westmount Magazine and Mr Toben will buy you a beer at the Irish pub of your choice.

Many of the 162,000 transported convicts were Irish Fenians. Some, aided by Irish Americans, actually managed to escape to Boston in the dramatic vessel Catalpa episode. About 1,000 convicts were from England’s then small Jewish population, including Esther Abrahams, the common law wife of a leader in the Rum Revolution, which in 1808 overthrew the Governor of New South Wales, Captain William Bligh (yeah, the same guy from Mutiny on the Bounty!). There’s a play in that. Who can join Timberlake and Marianne in this theatrical niche?

Our Country’s Good ended on February 6.
Dawson’s next shows are in March: (3 by Euripides/ 1 by Sophokles)
and April: A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde
See www.dawsoncollege.qc.ca

Images: Shake Photographie

Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club.

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